Happy Birthday, Annie Proulx!

Annie Proulx @ 2008 by PEN American Center/Beowolf Sheehan

Pulitzer Prize winning author Annie Proulx (The Shipping News) was born on this day in 1935. Proulx’s first novel Postcards was published when Proulx was 58 years old. So if any of you mid-life folks are feeling like it’s too late to try something new, please consider Annie Proulx as a refutation of that idea, as well as an inspiration.

To read/listen to Annie Proulx tell a story at the 2008 PEN World Voices Festival, click HERE.

Adventure and Art: A Manifesto for Women and Grrrls

I believe grrrls and women should have adventures. And we should have the opportunity to experience the adventures of other grrrls and women through books, film, music and visual arts.

Too many times we have read books and watched films about a man or boy having an adventure while a woman sits at home and waits for him. In movies like LEGENDS OF THE FALL, the male protagonist (in this case Tristan, played by Brad Pitt) travels the world having adventures and sex in opium dens while his true love sits at home on the Tristan’s front porch and waits for his return.

In books like Paul Coehlo’s THE ALCHEMIST, the spiritually seeking man (in this case, the protagonist Santiago) goes on an odyssey while his true love, the woman in the desert, stays in the desert unmoving, unchanging until Santiago’s return.

Which brings us to the word “odyssey” itself, a word derived from the name of the adventurous Odysseus who went to war and traveled the world for twenty years, while his wife Penelope stayed at home.

And even in contemporary books with female protagonists written by women, the big choice for the young woman often remains as uninteresting as “Should I chose the werewolf or the vampire to be my boyfriend?”


We as women and girls can’t just demand more interesting and engaging female characters. We have waited too long already. And there’s no guarantee the male dominated film industry or the imploding-as-we-speak publishing or music industries will listen. We have to write the books and—if necessary—publish them ourselves. We must write the scripts and storm Hollywood with them and—if necessary—make the movies ourselves. We must write the albums and–if necessary—record them ourselves. We must paint the paintings and—if necessary—show them ourselves.

We will no longer stand for stories that offer no more than the woman who waits on the front porch or in the desert, who plays the auxiliary wife of the man of action. We will no longer compliantly consume such art; we will, at the very least, take notice of the messages such art contains.

Statistics about women in artistic industries are daunting.

Only 30% of producers of major motion pictures are women. Only 10% of screenwriters of major motion pictures are women. Only 4% of directors of major motion pictures are women.

In the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York City, only 3.5% of the works of art on display are by female artists.

The publishing industry seems anomalous in this regard. Female editors and agents dominate the publishing industry. And most book buyers, book group members, and literary bloggers are women. And yet, to quote Lakshmi Chaudry “the gods of the literary…remain predominately male–both as writers and critics.”

From 1921-2006, only 31 % of the Pulitzer Prizes for Fiction were awarded to women.

Females easily make up 50% of published fiction writers; and yet in the New York Times article “What is the Best Work of American Fiction of the Past 25 Years?” of the 26 books mentioned, only 2 of them were written by women. (Writers of color are radically underrepresented in this article as well).

Does this mean women aren’t writing as well as men? Hardly. But it does mean their work does not receive the awards and acclaim more often bestowed upon their male counterparts.

Female fronted rock bands and female hip hop artists are still notable for their gender because rock and hip hop are also still male-dominated art forms.

These statistics and realities are daunting. But we will not spend too much time bitching about them; we will not become paralyzed by our complaints. We will instead notice them, pay attention to them; we will use our anger about them to drive dynamic and positive change. We will make that change ourselves.

Nicki Minaj

We don’t ask permission (or at least not for long). We write the stories, the songs, the films. We paint the paintings. We record or publish or film them ourselves if need be. We throw our own art openings. We open our own gallery spaces.

Like Ani Difranco, we start our own record label, Righteous Babe Records, and sell our music out of the trunk of our car until our records and our label take off. And we will go on to write, record and release more than 20 albums on our own label, maintaining our artistic freedom even as we garner attention and acclaim.

Like Kathleen Hannah (former lead singer of Bikini Kill) we start the underground punk rock Riot Grrrl movement even though, “punk rock is for and by boys.” We express our collective anger and joy loudly, for all the grrrls too afraid to do so themselves.

Like Nicki Minaj, we quit our 9-5 office job—despite the disappointment it causes our mother–to work on our lyrics full-time and push our career as a hip hop artist. And we write songs that say:

In this very moment I’m king/In this very moment I slayed Goliath with a sling… I wish that I could have this moment 4 life/4 life, 4 life/’Cause in this moment, I just feel so alive/alive, alive

Like Amanda Hocking, we publish our own books and make them available on our blog until the sheer buying power of our fan base drives the publishing industry to us.

Like Shauna Cross, we become a roller girl; and then we write a novel about it called DERBY GIRL; and then we write the screenplay adaptation of the novel, which becomes WHIP IT, the first movie directed by Drew Barrymore, a female actor brave enough to take the reins and make her own film.

The internet and social networking have brought down the barriers that once existed between art and audience; they have rendered the gatekeepers much less relevant than they have ever been before. And so we create our work; and we take responsibility for putting it out into the world so that our audience can find it.

But most of all we keep having adventures ourselves.

We don’t ask for permission to be granted by our fathers, our mothers, our lovers, our brothers, our husbands, our wives, our bosses, or friends. Or even from our sisters, who sometimes worry and so might like to have us sequestered from harm.

We go out into the world and live. We run through rain forests at night; and swim in oceans; and kayak; and when we run out of money, we take the ferry from Seattle to Alaska where we wait tables at the Princess Hotel and ride our mountain bikes under the midnight sun. We busk on the streets in Bosnia. We work as cops in Palmer Lake, Colorado. We teach a boy to read or a girl to play the guitar. We give birth to or adopt a child. We take a call on the National Domestic Violence Hotline. We go to physical therapy school. We support the art other women make; we buy extra copies of books and albums we love; we give them to our friends as gifts.

We say, “You are talented.”

We say, “You can do it.”

We say, “Yes it can be done.”

We say this to ourselves. We say this to each other.

And then we use our adventures to fuel our art and we share our art with others; to show them the way; to let them know that they are not alone. And so women and girls can see that with or without permission our art and our lives will flourish. Our art and our lives will not be stifled by the music or publishing or film industries or by gallery owners or well-meaning loved ones.

We are women and girls; and we will make our art and have our adventures; and we will support each other.

If this manifesto spoke to you, please shared it with a friend.


Spotify Killed the Record Store

I hate to say it, but I think the arrival of Spotify in the U.S. signals the death knell for indie record stores. For less than 10 bucks a month, I now have access to just about any artist to whom I want to listen. On my computer. And my phone.

Okay, so Bob Dylan isn’t on Spotify, but don’t most of us Dylan fans have at least a dozen of his albums floating around anyway?

Spotify has sent me on another PJ Harvey kick. The woman whose lyrics once inspired me to move to Spain (I want to bath in milk/eat grapes/Robert DeNiro/sit on my face/I want to go to Spain/spend nights/just sipping on nectar & ice) keeps putting out stunning, avant garde albums that never feel like repeats.

Needless to say, I am psyched to have all this rad music on hand for so cheap, but pretty bummed for good old Waterloo Records.

Spoon at Waterloo Records. photo by Manuel Nauta.

God(dess) Bless Rachel Maddow

photo by Paul Shoul

I watched part of “The Rachel Maddow Show” Wednesday night as I was running on the treadmill. (Okay, okay, the treadmill is lame, I know. But at 108 degrees outside it’s even too hot for me to run out there). And I was reminded of just how much of a bad ass she is. So I wanted to make a quick list of my

Top 5 Reasons to Love Rachel Maddow.

1. She doesn’t hesitate to call out the Republicans for advocating to strip the neediest and most marginalized Americans of current state and federal support services.

2. She doesn’t hesitate to call out the Democrats for being saggy old man balls and incite them to take some meaningful action. (I would call the Democrats pussies, but let’s face it, the vagina is an incredibly strong and muscular organ). And she presents Dems with viable ways they can take a stand, as she did during Wednesday night’s segment “GOP war on Unions presents advantage to Democrats.”

3. She speaks clearly about what’s at stake in the current political climate.

4. She’s hot to lesbians and bi girls. I mean, let’s face it, with her carefully crafted TV makeup on, she’s straight up gorgeous.

5. She’s hot to straight gals. I mean, let’s face it, in Buddy Holly Glasses and a hoodie she reminds every hetero leaning gal of our first tomboy crush…

Thanks, Rachel. Please keep showing us what it means to be a citizen!


A Diamond Is Forever: One Woman Questions the Most Successful Ad Slogan of All Time


The A Diamond Is Forever ad campaign (launched in 1938 by Harry Oppenheimer and the president of N.W. Ayer & Son, Gerold M. Lauck) successfully brainwashed a nation into believing that a diamond represents lasting romantic love; and even that the gift of a diamond ring at the time of engagement will help such love to endure the inevitable trials of a couple’s married life.

Women have been trained by ubiquitous advertising–on billboards, in magazines, and on television–to long for a man to give her a diamond ring, an expensive symbol that his unswerving devotion will last a lifetime.

Newly engaged women show off their sparkling diamond rings to oohing and aahing friends. The ring speaks loudly for the woman who wears it, saying: I am loved; I have been chosen; I am not alone.

As aware as I am of the history of the A Diamond Is Forever ad campaign and its impact on our perception of diamond rings, I myself–a happily never-married woman–find that my first thought upon seeing a pretty diamond on a woman’s ring finger is: Someone loves her enough to have bought her that ring.

Now I am the first to rejoice for loving partnerships and happy marriages; I also admire the wedding aesthetics of white dresses, diamond rings and elegant bouquets. Yet I feel it’s important to be aware of the way the A Diamond is Forever ad campaign–the most successful ad campaign in history–has shaped our thinking about this symbol of romantic love, which has too often also become a symbol of class, status, “worth,” and heteronormativity.

So it was with delight that as I was going through the checkout line at Whole Foods the other day, I noticed that the young woman bagging my groceries wore a gigantic faux diamond on the middle finger of her right hand. The diamond dazzled; it was ostentatiously huge, clearly fake, and super duper pretty.

“I like your ring,” I said.

“Thanks,” she said. And then she added, a little sheepishly, “I bought it for myself at the mall for seven bucks.”

“Wow,” I said. “It turns out none of us have to wait around for a man to buy us a gigantic diamond ring. We can just go get ourselves one at Claire’s.”

Both the young woman bagging groceries and the female cashier laughed as if they understood exactly what I meant, which was that we as women no longer need a man to marry us in order to feel validated, successful and worthy of approval. And yet we still, in some dark corner of our hearts, long for the sparkle and shine of the stone that speaks of everlasting love.

So if you have always secretly wanted a giant diamond, but:
1) don’t have a partner who wants to buy you one; and/or
2) don’t have a partner who can afford to buy you one; and/or
3) aren’t into funding the diamond trade,
take yourself to the mall, or hop on Amazon or Ebay and buy yourself an inexpensive and satisfyingly sparkly reminder that you are worthy, beautiful and loved.

After all, you can rest assured that even if that cheap piece of crap ring falls apart in two weeks, your relationship with yourself will certainly endure until you take your very last breath.

From Gender Violence to Gender Democracy: What Will It Take?

[caption id="attachment_9047" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="Helen Zia, activist, author, former editor of Ms. Magazine (San Francisco Sentinel)"][/caption]

My eight years working full-time in the movement to end violence against women have left me a little jaded. I realized this a few days ago when, at a team meeting, some of my colleagues were discussing The Family Violence Prevention Fund’s new name: Futures Without Violence.

“Ugh,” I said. “Who do they thing they’re kidding?”

My colleagues laughed.

“Better turn on your light box today, Mary,” one of my colleagues quipped.

So it was with mixed feelings that I prepared to travel to San Francisco to attend the Asian Pacific Islander Institute on Domestic Violence’s (APIIDV) 2011 National Summit entitled: From Gender Violence to Gender Democracy. What Will It Take? A snarky voice in my head said: “From Gender Violence to Gender Democracy? Good luck with that one, ladies.”

My tenure as an advocate in a domestic violence shelter followed by years working on the National Domestic Violence Hotline, followed by my current work as a Public Policy Analyst at the Texas Council on Family Violence have left me with a keen awareness of the overwhelming problem of violence against women, a problem that I believe to be rooted in patriarchy and gender oppression and inequity.

While working on the National Domestic Violence Hotline, I answered over 25,000 calls from domestic violence victims and their friends and families, and in doing so I developed what I consider to be an extensive anecdotal understanding of the triumvirate of race, class and gender oppression in America. Take for instance, a call I received from a Mexican immigrant woman whose physically and sexually abusive husband had left her alone with her two children and no income. She’d been pounding the pavement for weeks looking for work, but because she had no work permit she had not been able to secure employment. And because she was a monolingual spanish speaker without state identification, she had been unable to find and access a local food bank.

“My teenager understands why we don’t have food,” she told me. “But I’ve had nothing for my two year-old to eat for three days except sugar water, and she doesn’t understand why she is hungry.”

Because of the secondary trauma and sadness that the heightened awareness of gender violence has brought about in me, I had a hard time believing that attending APIIDV’s 2 ½ day summit would truly energize me to continue my work to cut through the barriers to services for all victims of gender violence, or allow me to believe that this cause for which I have worked for so long is not painfully, terribly hopeless.

But Helen Zia, the summit’s first speaker, changed all that for me. Zia, a long-time activist, author and former editor of Ms. Magazine, took the stage and immediately addressed this issue with which I had been grappling.

Zia spoke on the title of the summit, saying that when she thinks about moving towards the goal of gender democracy she is reminded of how she, as a lesbian, used to feel about the Gay Rights Movement’s fight for legal marriage for gays and lesbians.

Zia said, “I had to ask myself, is this worth fighting for? Because:
a) It will never happen anyway, so what’s the point; and
b) What’s so great about marriage anyway?”

The audience laughed; and I realized that I had found an iconoclastic activist with a sense of humor dark enough even for me. Zia went on to say that in the 1950s, African-Americans had to sit at the back of the bus; they had to drink water from separate fountains. And when they were finally allowed to sit at the front of the bus, they found the front of the bus was cleaner. And when they were finally allowed to drink from the forbidden fountains, they found that the water was sweeter.

Zia said that when she and her wife Lia legally married in California, they found that the water they had finally been allowed to drink was indeed sweeter. Her marriage brought about unexpected and beautiful things; because Zia and her wife had finally wed, the members of their two families began to consider themselves to be truly related, and made overtures to spend more time together and develop relationships with each other. As a result of their marriage, the two women’s families changed and grew closer. This was a wonderful benefit of marriage that Zia had not been able to anticipate or imagine. Zia used this personal experience to illuminate the title of the summit. “If we assume that gender violence will always be there,” she said, “then we will not bother to envision a world without violence. Thinking that way will ensure that a world without violence won’t happen, exactly because it will keep us from working towards it.”

Like Helen Zia, who did not know what it would be like to be married because she had never experienced it, none of us know what it will be like to experience a gender democracy because “we haven’t been there. But we are going to create it.”

Zia went on to say, “We can’t imagine what a gender democracy will be like. But we can know gender democracy will be better for women and girls who will be able to go to school or to the corner store without being snatched and trafficked,” will be able to walk across university campuses without being sexually assaulted, will be able to live safely in their own homes without fear of being abused by their intimate partners. “In a gender democracy, abusers will not be protected, no matter how rich and powerful they are.”

Zia’s powerful speech stripped away my feelings of hopelessness created by my hyper-awareness that gender oppression has both a long history and deep roots in our current society. Zia reminded me that it is possible to keep the snarky, dark humor that gets me through while maintaining an optimism and commitment to my work to bring an end to violence against women.

Helen Zia’s book “Asian American Dreams: the Emergence of An American People” is available for sale on Amazon. To read about or purchase the book click here.


Animal Kingdom

I had never heard of the Australian gem and terror of a film Animal Kingdom until Jacki Weaver was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her sweetly diabolical role as “Smurf,” the mother of a family of bankrobbers. A fan of every Australian film I’ve stumbled across (Flirting and Somersalt leap to mind) I decided to give Animal Kingdom a view.

The film begins with 17 year-old J sitting next to his mother as she ODs on heroin. The paramedics arrive and go to work. Cut to J calling his grandmother “Smurf”, who he obviously barely knows, to tell her his mother is dead. His grandmother tells him she is on her way to fetch him.

The surprisingly lovely grandmother arrives and whisks J to live with her and her four sons, a tight clan of loose cannons. The viewer quickly realizes that this family of crooks is truly complicated and terrible when Smurf gives one of her boys a lingering kiss on the mouth in front of all of the others.

The viewer has the unsettling sense that even J, a quiet, awkward boy gifted at keeping his head down and his mouth shut, will not be able to safely navigate his new place in this madhouse family.

This gorgeous, poetic, and terrifying tale by first time screenwriter/director David Michôd will resonate with anyone who remembers the helplessness of late adolescence, the time when we are so close to adulthood, yet not yet able to chose our household.

Part 2: Flying High with Trapeze Austin

Leap and the net will appear. –John Burroughs, American naturalist

Last week at trapeze class, I did not successfully complete a “mid-air transfer” i.e. when I let go of my trapeze, I wasn’t caught by the instructor hanging by his knees from the other trapeze.

But to put it more accurately, I didn’t let myself be caught.

See, the trick, when flying through the air, is to “present” your arms to the “catcher” and let him grab you by the wrists. Only once the “catcher” has you firmly by the wrists do you grab back.

But last week, as soon as the catcher was within my grasp, I tried desperately to grab ahold of him. And with me trying to grab him, he couldn’t catch me.

Trying to make the catch happen wasn’t my only mistake. In trapeze, your body goes where your eyes go. Instead of looking high towards the catcher, I stared straight down at the net. And so that is where I ended up.

This week, I worked on a new trick—the split—and with a little faith in Chris, the catcher, I was able to both look up at her and “present” my hands and wrists. And sure enough, when I looked up and let go of the idea that I had to make the catch happen, I felt her hands wrapped solidly around my wrists.

Trapeze Austin